Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

The retired Army general shares why he has yet to endorse anyone in the 2012 presidential race, explains his views on domestic policy and unemployment and details his book, It Worked for Me.

A retired four-star Army general and former secretary of state, Colin Powell not only served the U.S. in a 35-year military career, but also in public service in multiple administrations and has earned numerous honors. As President Reagan's national security advisor, he was the first African American to serve in that position, as he was in every office held after, including chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Since retiring, Powell has remained vocal on political topics and joined both the business and nonprofit communities. He also serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Colin Powell back to this program. The former U.S. secretary of State and decorated four-star general is, of course, a best-selling author whose latest text is called “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Secretary Powell, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Colin Powell: Thank you, Tavis, good to be with you again.

Tavis: I promise to get right to the book if you allow me to ask a few questions about items in the news. I suspect that doesn’t surprise you, given the roles that you’ve played in our government, that I might want to pick your brain about a few things.

Let me start, of course, with the news made some weeks ago by you that you have not decided as yet, at least, unless you want to break some news tonight, you’ve not decided as yet to endorse in the presidential race, which leads to two questions.

I try not to ask them in tandem, but let me just get them out the way and give you time to answer them. The first question is do you intend to endorse in this race, and if so, what are you looking or listening for to help make that decision?

Powell: Well, Tavis, I’m a private citizen and I’m on a book tour, not on a political tour, so I don’t have any need to endorse anybody at the moment. As I have done in every election since I started voting so many years ago, I always like to take my time and examine the two candidates, see not only the two candidates but the policies they will bring in, the people they will bring in, who they might appoint to the Supreme Court, and look at the whole range of issues before making a decision.

Then once I’ve made a decision I will either just vote that decision, or if I feel there is need for me to say something publically, I will do so, as I did in 2008. But I’m under no pressure from the system to say anything at this point and I’m just going to keep looking and watching.

Tavis: You talk about the decision you had to make not run for president some years back. I’ll come to that later when we get into the book. But since we’re talking about presidential politics and your decision at the moment, at least, not to endorse, let me ask you a couple questions about the current president, though – one about domestic policy and one about foreign policy, and we’ll move on.

On the foreign policy question, President Obama has used more drones now than George Bush did. We know that when President Bush left office he asked President Obama to continue at least two programs that had to do with foreign policy.

The president did just continue the use of drones. He’s increased it. What’s your sense of the use of these unmanned vehicles that too often to my mind, at least, are killing innocent women and children?

Powell: Well, let’s remember they may be unmanned in the sense that there is no human being aboard the aircraft, but they’re being manned by people who are watching, and they don’t just go out and indiscriminately drop bombs on people and nobody’s monitoring it.

The people who operate these things are using the best intelligence they have, but in a war which we are in with respect to these terrorists, mistakes will be made.

I think that the administration and our military commanders, as we’ve heard in recent days, have to do all they can to make absolutely sure of the targets they’re going after and not do it in an indiscriminate way, sometimes letting a target go if the likelihood of creating or causing collateral damage and killing innocent civilians is a likelihood. Then pass, get the guy another time.

But drones are just another weapon, and they turn out to be a very effective weapon that puts no American troops at risk, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t use them against identified enemy targets. There are people out there who are trying to get the capability not only to attack us here but to kill our soldiers in Afghanistan, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t use that weapon against those who would kill us, if given the chance.

Tavis: A quick follow-up, though. Respectfully, though, they’re not just another weapon. They have become the weapon of choice. They’ve become the way, these days, at least, that we fight wars, and the Congress, for that matter, doesn’t have a whole lot to say about it at this point. Are you okay with using these weapons as a new way of fighting war? Because they’re not just another weapon.

Powell: They are another weapon. To say that this is our weapon of choice, I don’t think the infantrymen walking along the ground and getting hit by IEDs and searching villages and using rifles are not a weapon of choice.

You use whatever weapon is best suited to take out the target that you are after. Congress has oversight over everything that the military does. They have the power of the purse and if they chose to they can get more deeply involved in supervising the program and making sure that it meets our constitutional requirements and that it meets the law as Congress has established that law.

So it is one weapon of many weapons, and I would submit it is not simply a weapon of choice. It’s a new weapon and it has new capabilities that weren’t available to us before. But use it very carefully, just as I would use a platoon going into a village very careful.

If you indiscriminately kill women and children and you could have avoided it, then you’re hurting our cause. So use it with care and use it with the best intelligence you can find, and always try to err on the side of not hitting any innocent civilians who may be nearby.

Tavis: On domestic policy, it’s pretty clear to me and I suspect you and everybody else who’s paying attention that this campaign is going to be waged over the economy.

Mr. Romney has made it very clear that he is going after the president on his record on the economy. What’s your sense of what the president has done or not done, as it were, putting Americans back to work?

Powell: Well, I think the premise is correct. As I travel around the country and as I travel around the world and I listen to my fellow citizens, the economy is number one, and it should be, because that’s what the rest of the world is doing – focusing on their economies, stabilizing their economies in Europe, the problem with the Eurozone, or growing their economies in places like China and India and in Latin America to bring more people up out of poverty.

So the economy is number one. I think the president has done some good things. When he came in the financial system was in total disarray. I think the financial system has been put on stable ground, but as we have seen recently, things can still go wrong with the financial system.

What we have to find is the right level of regulation of our financial system so that it has the incentive to invest in things, but at the same time it is sufficiently regulated so it can’t get in the kind of trouble that we have seen in the past and we have seen recently.

So I give the credit to the president for that. He stabilized the automobile industry, he’s being attacked for not letting it go bankrupt, but the issue is did he fix it, and he did fix it. His technique worked, and the American people are having their investment paid back over time.

The economy, I think, has to start growing more than it has so far, but at the same time we are seeing signs of growth. I see some construction taking place in my own neighborhood. I sense that the economy is starting to pick up in manufacturing.

But there’s a long way to go, and the president will have to answer to this when the election comes around in November and during the campaign. Mr. Romney, rightfully, should be attacking him. He’s on the other side of the issue. But we have to listen carefully to what Mr. Romney says his policies will be and how will they really be that much different from what’s going on now.

I don’t think just cutting taxes, if that’s his sole policy or part of his policy. People will have to judge whether they think that in and of itself will fix the economy. I wish that both sides would have adopted some of the recommendations that had come out earlier from Senator Simpson and his colleagues.

That was a balanced approach, where you would have spending cuts, which we need, cut federal spending, and at the same time look for additional sources of revenue. But we’re spending $3.5 trillion a year, the federal government, and we’re only taking in $2.5 trillion. You can’t do this forever.

The only way we’re doing it is by borrowing that missing trillion dollars and placing a burden on us in the future to pay the debt, the interest and the debt, and that’ll be something for our children to worry about.

So I wish that the Simpson-Bowles plan had been taken up by the president and by the other side as well, and see if we could not find a balanced solution to this problem. But it’s hard to find a balance when both sides are so diametrically opposed to each other and becoming more and more linked to the orthodoxy of their political parties.

Tavis: Speaking of balance, I want to use the balance of my time to talk about the reason why you’re on the program tonight – your book. If I could ask one quick follow up, though, because it is such a hotspot. There are so many hotspots, for that matter, in the world right now.

If I ask you as former secretary of State about all the hotspots, I wouldn’t have any time to talk about the text. But I would seem remiss, I think, if I didn’t ask you about Syria right quick, since that is obviously at the top of our agenda right now. What is the way forward, to your mind, with regard to Syria?

Powell: It’s an extremely difficult problem, and the scenes that come across our television sets every night are horrific. President Assad, I worked with, I know him reasonably well, met with him a few times, and he’s a liar. He should move on.

But I am not sure what replaces him, and I’m not sure that there is a better solution than what we’re trying now, which is to use diplomatic, economic and political pressure to persuade him to find a way to transfer power to responsible, legitimate new sources of power, new political leadership.

So those who suggest, well, let’s get militarily involved, I would suggest caution. When you decide to get involved in a military operation in a place like Syria, you’ve got to be prepared, as we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, to become the government, and I’m not sure any country, either the United States or I don’t hear of anyone else, who’s willing to take on that responsibility.

The other proposal is to arm the opposition. That’s certainly something you can look at, but make sure you know who you’re arming and what you’re liable to get from that solution. Then provide safe havens for people in other countries may be a possibility, but I think stick with the political, diplomatic and economic track for the time being.

Tavis: Again, I’m so tempted to continue picking your brain about these hotspots around the globe, but want to, again, as I promised, get to the text. There are a number of things, a number of political issues, for that matter, decisions that you’ve made in your life that you finally open up and talk about in the text, which allows me to some degree to continue this line of questioning.

For example, you talked for the first time extensively about the UN speech, and everybody knows when you say Colin Powell and the UN speech, you know what we’re talking about.

Speaking of lessons learned, what did you learn as you look back on that speech? Clearly the most important and at the same time the most controversial speech you’ve ever given in your life.

Powell: That’s absolutely right, and I am not opening up for the first time. I’ve been answering questions about that speech for eight years. Every appearance I give, every interview I give, I get asked about it.

The reality is that I used the intelligence information that was provided to me and provided to the president and provided to the Congress and provided to all our government officials from the intelligence community, all 16 agencies coming together, that said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It turned out those weapons were not there, so the intelligence information was wrong, and I was the most visible presentation of that information, and so everybody remembers my speech and they don’t remember the president’s State of the Union address where he said the same thing, and they forget that Congress used that same intelligence information to pass a resolution four months before my speech telling the president that if diplomacy doesn’t work we will approve your taking military action.

But the reality is it’s my speech that’s the most famous presentation of the intelligence. The lesson learned – I wish we had more time to have looked over that intelligence and probably seen some of the faults that were built into that intelligence. The fact that some of the material rested on sources that we thought were multiple good sources turned out to be one bad source that we had never talked to.

If I had known that, that information wouldn’t have been presented. I tried to pick out of the national intelligence estimate the best information to make the case. It was attested to by the CIA and there were two investigations afterwards that found fault in the way the analysis was done.

So we just have to be more careful. I know that the CIA and the other intelligence agencies have taken action to make sure that kind of false intelligence does not get into the system the way it did in the past.

Tavis: So if I take your answer and top-line it, your sense is that you received bad intel, not that you were deliberately misled.

Powell: I was not deliberately misled. There are a lot of critics of the president’s policy and my speech that want to say you were misled or you lied or you told untruths.

We didn’t tell untruths. We told the world what the intelligence community was telling us, and six months after the fall of Baghdad, when on weapons of mass destruction had been found, the Central Intelligence Agency was still saying they stood by the judgments they had made the previous fall.

So that is not deception on my part or the president’s part. We were using the information that was given to us, and that is not an untruth. Turned out to be wrong. Well, we got things wrong. But it wasn’t a matter of trying to deliberately deceive the international community or the American people.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about intel, one of the other lessons that you talk about and one of the experiences that you share in the book is – I want to phrase this the right way – your journey, your navigating your way forward in a world where everything is now digital and what that means for leadership and decision-making.

You’re not a 13-year-old kid; for that matter, I’m not a 13-year-old kid. So this does come at some expense. What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way about having to navigate a world politically and, for that matter, outside the body politic, where digital media and just the digitization of our lives is concerned?

Powell: Well, I’m 75 years old and I was born analogue, and I’ve been desperately trying to become digital both to keep up with the world and to keep up with my grandchildren. The new generation was born digital and they live in a digital world.

We are all living in the world of touchscreen devices, of smartphones. We’re living in a world where the Internet is driving so much of our life, and that’s the world we live in. We have to get used to it. Everything is moving at 186,000 miles per second.

Cable television is playing a much more significant role in our life than ever before, any television has ever done before. News broadcasts have frequently turned into just commentary broadcasts, where you’re not getting news, you’re just getting commentators commenting on what other commentators have said, and I sometimes think we’ve got too much of this kind of commentary coming at us and we can’t really filter it out.

One of the byproducts, Tavis, is that we are reinforcing our own views on some of these shows and other blogs and other things that come out, so that we’re not crossing the divide to see what other people are thinking and take their thoughts into account.

So I think we’re going to have to really start taking a hard look at how we’re educating ourselves, how we’re educating our children, and as one person has put it, is the world too much with us, the digital world, and do we start pushing back and start thinking somewhat in a more analogue system.

My own experience is use the tools that are out there. Use the digital world. But never lose sight of the need to reach out and talk to other people who don’t share your view. Listen to them and see if you can find a way to compromise. We’re not compromising enough in our political life right now. We’re just arguing and shouting and sticking with our predetermined points of view, our orthodoxy.

Tavis: Since you mentioned education, you talk extensively about that in the text, of course, and since you mention your grandchildren, I suspect that the Powell of grandchildren are going to have the chance to receive the best education this country can afford.

But you started out in public education. I suspect it’s going to be one of those issues, again, hotly debated in this campaign, what to do about the education – or put another way, the miseducation of America’s children. You talk about it in the book. Tell me more.

Powell: I talk about it all the time. My wife and I, as you well know, Tavis, are committed to helping those of our fellow citizens, youngsters coming along to do well in life, and we talk about the education system as if the education of our children just has to do with schools.

Sure, we have to have the best schools, particularly in our poor neighborhoods, and we want to have the best teachers and pay the best teachers, but the education of a child does not begin in school, it begins at home.

It begins when a mother holds a child in her arms and the child knows that’s my mother. That’s the language that child will learn. If that mother and father, hopefully, or family, does not shake that child in the early years by reading to the child, teaching the child numbers, colors, how to tell time, and a word you and I may still remember, but not too many other people remember – mind.

Mind your adults, mind your manners, mind yourself, and go to school to learn. If that child does not show up in school with the right preparation in the home and in the community, then that child is already behind, and by the third grade the child realizes he or she is behind and they start acting out behind.

So let’s think of the education system as beginning from prenatal care through infancy and then into our educational system. My particular background, I went to public schools. I didn’t go to the best public schools. I wanted to go to the best public high school in New York City, but they said, “No, you’re not smart enough to go there,” so I went to the school that had to let me in.

Then I went to the City College of New York, a great public institution, and I went from kindergarten all the way through college never having paid a nickel for my education because the people and the government of the city of New York felt they had no more important obligation than to invest in the future of the school, of the teachers, of the city, of our nation, by investing in the kids.

City College is still doing it, but we need to understand that we as citizens and as a government in any community throughout this country have no more important obligation than to educate those who are going to replace us, and I feel very, very strongly about it and I talk about it all the time, and I talk about it extensively in the book.

Tavis: But if one wanted to take you to task about that, and there are many who would, the argument would simply be Secretary Powell, General Powell, you can’t solve the education crisis in this country by throwing money at it.

You’ve heard that critique more than once, and what you’ve just laid out is that the government, when you were growing up, had no greater priority than to make sure that its citizenry was educated, and I’m a recipient of that myself.

But what do you say to people who say we have tried over and over again the process of throwing money at the problem and it’s not working. It’s not solving anything.

Powell: Well, it is working. My wife and I spend a lot of time following the roughly 10 years ago 2,000 schools that were producing most of the dropouts, and we now have seen that those 2,000 schools are down to 1,600. So they can be improved.

But it’s not just throwing money. Some of the programs that President Bush put in place and that President Obama has continued with are starting to show progress.

My wife is running a program through the America’s Promise alliance called Grad Nation, holding summits all across the country to make sure that the resources in a community – not just money but time and talent and other things that our community can bring to the educational process are being well used.

A number of the states are doing a tremendous job. Some are falling behind. But it is not an insoluble problem. It is a problem that has dimension, that has structure to it, and we can apply resources to those problems with the same structure and with the dimension that it’ll move it on.

You’ll recall that I didn’t just say throw money at it; I say start in the home. That isn’t throwing money, that’s throwing love. Throw love at a child. Tell a child that you love and you’re going to take care of them.

There’s one kid in Denver that I saw on television one day. He’s become the valedictorian of his Catholic high school graduating class. About 80 kids graduated. They all graduated, and they’re asking him, “How did you come up? How did it work for you, a Hispanic kid from a poor family?”

He looked right back at the camera and he said, “I was never, ever given the opportunity to fail.” His teachers, his family, his coaches, his friends, his neighborhood, would not let him fail. Tavis, that’s what happened to me, and I’m sure that happened to you. Did you ever dream of going home and telling your parents you’re going to drop out of school?

Tavis: Yeah, I take your point. (Laughter) I would have got a beat-down if I even had the thought run across my head.

Powell: I’d have been thrown out and they’d have gone and gotten another kid.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) What we’re talking about here now, though, and again, back to the book, you talk so much about this, “It Worked for Me,” your new book, “In Life and Leadership,” you talk about working hard, and there’s no American in his or her right mind who’s going to be opposed to working hard.

But the reality is that so many Americans now are unemployed, they are underemployed, they’ve been unemployed for one, two, three, four years now, they’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost their 401(k), they’ve lost their – they’ve lost everything as a consequence of this Great Recession, as a consequence of corporate greed, as a consequence of political indifference.

They find themselves where they are, but it’s not because, Secretary Powell, they didn’t work hard. So for those persons who are tired of hearing somebody say, “Work hard,” you say what to them tonight?

Powell: I’m saying continue to work hard if you have a job, and if you don’t have a job, but there are jobs in your community that require a higher level of education and a different kind of skill experience, then prepare yourself for those jobs.

There’s one dimension that you left out of your listing of things, Tavis, and that is that it’s not just a U.S. economy standing alone by itself, as it did for so many decades. We’re now in an integrated economy, an economy that includes Europe and its Eurozone problems, an economy that includes China and India, with low wages but they’re busy creating wealth to bring more people up out of poverty.

So we have to realize we’re now in an international economic system, and as the president and others on the Republican side have been saying in recent days, we could really be hurt and go to the edge again if the Eurozone starts to have significant problems, and if Spain and Greece and Ireland and some of the other countries of Europe aren’t able to get their economy going.

We can be in trouble if China was not able to keep its economy going. So we have to look at the whole thing as an international problem and not just a national problem for Americans. But working hard is a great ethic for all of us to have, and I was saying to my wife the other night I think every 17-year-old kid should get a menial job somewhere mopping a floor, doing something they don’t like, and they’d realize right away that they’d better get their education and prepare themselves for a higher-skilled American workforce.

Tavis: My time with Secretary Powell is up, regrettably, but there’s so much in the book that I couldn’t get to, but you can imagine a life this well lived. There are a lot of lessons learned along the way we couldn’t get to, but there’s some great ones in here.

Get mad and then get over it, avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls your ego goes with it, perpetual optimism is a force multiplier – a lot of good stuff in the new book from Colin Powell, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.”

Secretary Powell, always a delight, sir, to have you on this program. Thank you for your time and for the book.

Powell: Thanks, Tavis, and optimism, confidence and believing in yourself are the messages I want to convey to young people especially.

Tavis: We thank you, sir.

Powell: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

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  • Alberto Rincon

    Please let me know if this interview will be available online so I can Finish watching it.

    I’m a bit disappointed this happened, and I really take Gen. Powell’s point of view very seriously, because he, to my interpretation, is an honorable, and honest person.

    Thanking you, and your staff, for the attention taken.
    sincerely, Alberto W, Rincon.

  • Carla Amurao

    Hi Alberto,
    Thanks for writing us. The video should be up and running on this page now. Thanks!

    -Tavis Smiley Staff

  • Chintale

    Although I recently watched the previously recorded interview with the former U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, I enjoyed his viewpoints about the current and past presidents, the weapons of mass distruction, and the pros and cons of technology, and his book. I agree with him that the education system is broken and resources must be dedicated to change the hopelessness that lives within the walls of our schools. However, additional resources need to be used to help strengthen families as well. The family unit has been substantially weaken and in some cases destroyed. Therefore the values that was bestowed in past generations, is missing in current ones. As for the message about continueing to work hard… it is true and needs to be a standard staple in every message in households, community agencies, civic projects and schools across the nation. However, what about the disenfranchised, persons with convictions, who are constantly told “no” when they attempt to enter and be an active participate in the workforce? When you have people increasing their knowledge and skills but still have significant difficulty becoming a full citizen as am employed, tax paying contributor of America because of their criminal record, its hard to tell them to keep working hard. Tavis, what is America doing to include ALL of its citizens, not just the ones who appear to have lived a perfect life. Not too many people talk about the inclusive process of second, third or fourth chances for our CITIZENS! This too is an important cause to help people actively “work hard” and take advantage of the resources in this great country.

  • Rajan Manwani

    Chintale, I agree with your points. Tavis, thanks for this insightful interview.

Last modified: June 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm